We’ve lost one of our own today. Stan Lee, the man who made the comic book (and superheroes) what they are today passed away this morning at the age of 95, and the Marvel fandom mourns for him.
There are some amazing things that Stan Lee did during his life that you may or may not know about, and I would like to reflect on them a bit while remembering Stan the Man.
Stan Lee Served in the U.S. Army
Mr. Lee served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1942-1945, during World War II. During his service, he did technical writing, wrote posters, and worked as a cartoonist. In 2017, he was inducted into the Signal Corps Regimental Association. He later stated that “as a writer, he used his experiences throughout his life to influence his characters and hopes they will continue to live on and inspire others.”
He Was Jewish
Born Stanley Lieber in late 1922 to Romanian Jewish immigrant parents, he later changed his name to “Stan Lee” when he began writing comics. Originally, he wrote under the pseudonym because he intended to publish literary works under his real name, but later in his life he legally changed his name to Lee.
He Didn’t Have Instant Success
It’s a common misconception that Stan Lee enjoyed a lot of success during the Golden Age of comics, but the truth is that he started working at Timely Comics when he was sixteen for $8/week. When he returned from his service in the U.S. Army, he was the editor-in-chief, but even so, it was a small operation that required a lot of work. Throughout the 1950s he wrote mostly genre pieces such as westerns or sci-fi, but that wasn’t where his heart was.
In 1961, he created his own superteam, the Fantastic Four (pretty much the first characters he created that met with lots of success), and helped usher in the Silver Age of comics. Soon after, he created Peter Parker, better known as Spider-Man. During this time, he created and co-created dozens of characters that we still know and love today (Iron Man, Doctor Strange, The Hulk, Thor), many of whom are quite prevalent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is undoubtedly the most successful cinematic franchise of all time.
During this time, Stan really wanted to create superheroes who were more than two-dimensional, the way most of the early superheroes felt to him. He wanted people to resonate with the characters, to really bond with their story arcs, so he made each character he was responsible for embody a very deep sense of humanity…along with some very human flaws. This resulted in a new type of superhero, one who had a very individualized story arc and had to overcome their flaws in order to be a hero. (I discussed this at length in a class on comics that I taught earlier this year, and Tony Stark is the perfect example of a Silver Age-Stan Lee hero).
Stan Lee’s desire to create superteams and superheroes that were complex and imperfect changed the face of comics, and to a degree, storytelling overall, as almost every superhero movie created was affected by Lee’s work.
While he was reshaping of the concept of a hero and diversifying comic characters by creating characters such as Sam “The Falcon” Wilson, Stan Lee was also battling censorship. Similar to the film industry, comics also faced strict rules on what could and could not be included in comics, which often led to silly or ridiculous storylines (like Wonder Woman wanting to be a housewife). Comics, it was said, were meant to be entertainment for young children and therefore should not include any adult themes. Enter Stan Lee, who, in 1971, decided to publish a three-issue arc of Spider-Man that included prescription drug abuse. The story was meant as a warning against drug abuse, but the Comic Code Authority refused to grant its approval. Lee published the arc anyway and it met with commercial and critical success, thereby loosening the grip of censorship on the industry and changing it (again) forever.
“I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers,” he said. “And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.” -Stan Lee
On behalf of myself and every child who grew up reading comics, thank you, Mr. Lee. You gave hope to millions of children who felt like misfits, and you inspired the heroes in all of us. On behalf of the Collective family, I extend my condolences to Mr. Lee’s family. He was a great man who shared his talent and vision with the world. He will be missed.